Published on Wednesday December 26, 2012
Sharon Aschaiek Special to The Star
Blending into the building’s exterior design, a curved concrete ramp is the first clue that The Foundery embraces accessibility.
Similar clues can be found almost everywhere inside the co-working and event space at 376 Bathurst St. in Toronto’s west end: flexible work stations with customizable desks and chairs; cupboards and lockers at wheelchair height; fully accessible main-floor washrooms; and an elevator for the two-storey space.
Most of these physical adaptations were made in consultation with the entrepreneurs, students and non-profit directors who’ve been using the building’s work space since it opened last January.
The Foundery’s premises and practices reflect many of the standards promoted by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, part of which began affecting small businesses at the start of this year.
“We want to ensure that this building is in line with our vision to be inclusive, innovative and empowering for our entire community,” says Ashley Proctor, partner and manager at The Foundery, who herself has had restricted mobility since a 2002 bike accident. “Plus, a huge proportion of population needs access to services, so it’s just good business practice to be open to everyone.”
Introduced by the provincial government in 2005 to make private, public and non-profit organizations barrier-free for customers and employees with a physical, mental, developmental or learning disability, the AODA will provide mandatory accessibility standards for information and communication, transportation, the built environment and customer service. The act is already law and affects all companies with more than 20 employees — companies with fewer staff are only required to comply with the last requirement and take specific steps to implement the rest of the legislation.
First, they have to create a plan for serving disabled people with service animals, support workers, and assistive devices such as wheelchairs and canes; offering alternative service strategies such as deliveries or carry-outs; letting customers know when accessibility services aren’t available; and inviting disabled patrons to provide feedback on operations. They must also train their staff on this plan.
To comply, businesses must create a plan for serving disabled people with service animals, support workers, and assistive devices such as wheelchairs and canes; offering alternative service strategies such as deliveries or carry-outs; letting customers know when accessibility services aren’t available; and inviting disabled patrons to provide feedback on operations. They must also train their staff on this plan.
Implementation tips, as well as more details on the standard and the act in general, can be found on the Ministry of Community and Social Services website.
“This standard emphasizes that businesses need to ensure their premises are accessible and that they need to communicate effectively with people with disabilities,” says David Baker, principal at Bakerlaw, which specializes in disability and human rights law, and is the firm that drafted the customer service standard.
Businesses caught violating the law can face stiff fines—up to $50,000 for individuals or unincorporated organizations, and up to $100,000 for corporations—but “no specific mechanism has been established yet to enforce the legislation,” Baker says.
Whether the AODA is actually given teeth has yet to be seen, but there is a clear business argument for becoming accessible. A MCSS infographic shows that over the next 20 years, 40 per cent of total income in Ontario will be earned by Ontario’s aging population and people with disabilities. That’s equivalent to $536 billion. The infographic also suggests improved accessibility in Ontario could lead to $9.6 billion in new retail spending and $1.6 billion in new tourism spending.
But pursuing these opportunities comes at a price — Proctor says it cost her partner at The Foundery, who owns the building, about $35,000 to make all the accessibility upgrades.
Ronny Wiskin of ReliAble Independent Living Services says in recent months, his company has fielded a growing number of calls from entrepreneurs seeking advice about adapting their facilities, and he has implemented solutions for dozens of small businesses, including ramps ($1,000 to $2,000), new entranceways ($10,000 to $30,000) and wheelchair lifts (approximately $30,000). But, Wiskin says, given that one in seven Ontarians has a disability, and that Baby Boomers are entering their golden years, taking proactive steps to comply with the AODA is a smart business move.
“When you consider the spending power of this population,” he says, “(giving access to) people of all abilities just makes good business sense.”